Dissecting Cindy McCain's private world

Are there any journalistic standards left for determining whether a political figure's private life should be investigated and disclosed?

By Glenn Greenwald
Published October 18, 2008 3:06PM (EDT)

The New York Times today has a very strange, lengthy front-page story on Cindy McCain -- by Jodi Kantor and David Halbfinger -- dredging up some unpleasant episodes in the distant past of her private life without adding any new information, sprinkling some innuendo about the McCains' long-distance marriage, analyzing her personality and health mostly with pure speculation, and just generally dissecting her private and emotional sphere for no apparent reason beyond idle voyeurism.  Some of the facts discussed are, I suppose, arguably relevant (her connection to the Keating Five scandal and how Washington scorned her as a result of McCain's ugly treatment of his first wife), but the vast bulk of the article, while quite invasive, seems indistinguishable from lowly, rank gossip.

The article doesn't even arguably raise an issue of political bias, as the NYT has long been obsessed with the Clintons' marriage and sex lives (one of the worst, though by no means only, examples being this 2006 sleazy, highly detailed front-page gossip item from Patrick Healy -- entitled "For Clintons, Delicate Dance of Married and Public Lives" -- "reporting" that "Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife" and that "Bill and Hillary Clinton have built largely separate lives" while chronicling the number of nights they've spent together). But this Cindy McCain article does seem to suggest that there are no longer any standards governing when "political journalists" dig into the private and sex lives of political figures -- and their family members -- even when doing so lacks even a purported connection to some matter of public interest.

Even as recently as the Bill Clinton sex witch hunt of the 1990s, examinations of a political figure's private life generally required at least some pretense of justification. Disclosure of private lives for its own sake wasn't really the prevailing standard, at least not overtly.  The bottomless fixation on the Right -- and, just as much, in establishment journalism -- with the Clintons' marital life, Bill Clinton's specific sex acts and even his penile spots was "justified" by the claim that those facts were relevant to the perjury allegations.  Those justifications were tenuous at best -- more accurately:  absurdly false excuses for wallowing in their lives -- but at least the rationale had to be proffered.

Similarly, reporting on Mark Foley's sex scandal was justified by the involvement of under-aged pages and the abuse of power angle.  The reporting on the sexual escapades of David Vitter, Larry Craig and Eliot Spitzer were at least accompanied -- to varying degrees -- by the criminality and hypocrisy angles, given that (in the case of the GOP Senators) they had built their careers around claims of superior sexual morality and (in the case of all three) using the force of law to punish people for their private choices.  The current case of Rep. Tim Mahoney's multiple affairs potentially involves abuse of power and illegal use of campaign and other public funds.

But the media explosion over John Edwards' extramarital affairs in early August -- long after he was done seeking office, and involving no whiff of illegality or "wrongdoing" beyond the adultery itself -- seemed to signal that anything and everything that happens in the private lives of political figures is now fair game for reporting, intrinsically a matter of legitimate inquiry, and that purported connections to the public interest were no longer required.  The NYT article today picking apart Cindy McCain's private world seems to be a continuation of the degraded standard. 

Who cares how many nights John and Cindy have spent together over the past couple of decades, or how affectionate they are with one another when sitting at home, or that -- 15 years ago -- she "was caught stealing drugs from her nonprofit organization to feed her addiction to painkillers," or whether her 2004 separation from McCain was due (as she claimed) to a stroke, or whether their marriage is a union of convenience and business rather than true love, or whether she actually crossed into Rwanda from Zaire during a 1994 trip to help refugees, or how often his friends in DC interact with her socially?  How is there a public interest in knowing any of that?

Way worse, in order to write the article, the NYT's Kantor trolled Facebook and found adolescent classmates of Bridget McCain's and -- at least in one case -- sent an email that said this:

I’m a reporter at the New York Times, writing a profile of Cindy McCain, and we are trying to get a sense of what she is like as a mother. So I’m reaching out to fellow parents at her kids’ schools.

Is investigating Cindy McCain's fitness as a mother actually a legitimate function for the political reporters at the NYT?  Doesn't that question answer itself?

It's true that the Right -- which built a cottage industry of low-life dirt-peddlers that persists to this day out of sleazily digging into every facet of the Clintons' private lives, and then became voracious amplifiers of National Enquirer during the Edwards scandal -- has very little standing to complain here, since they helped spawn these invasions.  And none of this has anything to do specifically with Cindy McCain, since the treatment to which she's subjected here is, by now, anything but unique (though remarkably little interest was displayed when it came to digging into what was, by all accounts, the rich and ample hedonism of George W. Bush's pre-"born-again" life).

But it seems rather obvious that there are now basically no journalistic standards left for determining when a political figure's private life (or even that of their spouse) is "relevant" -- apparently, it's all relevant now, down to the last tawdry detail.  In particular, adultery (without regard to whether the spouse consents) is, without any further consideration, a legitimate topic to report.  That inevitably has to lead to an even further erosion (if that's possible) of our political class, a further narrowing of the people willing to enter politics.  And the vast disparity between the media resources and attention devoted to sleazy gossip like this versus actual investigation of true government corruption and crime seems to be growing by the day, such that behavior like this will further decay our already quite decadent journalistic class as well.

Glenn Greenwald

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